By Leslie L. Fuller
Chicago-bound business travelers and celebrities can now choose to touchdown to luxury at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Surprised? While those unfamiliar with Indiana’s burgeoning aviation scene may not associate northwest Indiana with upscale travel, high fliers who routinely navigate to the Windy City know the expanding airport is offering increasing amenities, including the $9 million dollar B. Coleman Aviation hangar.
Named for the beautiful and daring African-American pilot Bessie Coleman, who soared to fame in air shows in the 1920s, the B. Coleman Hangar is the fruit of a project launched by Chicago real estate baron Elzie Higginbottom, a well-known Black entrepreneur.
During the ribbon-cutting last November, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson expressed appreciation to Higgenbottom, who is also known as a political fundraiser for former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as well as President Barack Obama. Members from the Chicago DODO Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. presented the entrepreneur with a trophy for assisting the organization for African American military pilots of World War II.
“There are Pintos and there are Cadillacs, there are Chevettes and there are Tahoes,” said Freeman-Wilson. “But this is the Cadillac of hangars.”
Benjamin Toles, the hangar’s general manager, singled Coleman out for praise on opening day. “Let us not forget on whose shoulders we stand, because Bessie Coleman was a pioneer in aviation. Thank you to Bessie for the doors she opened,” said Toles. Representing Coleman’s family on the milestone day was Gigi Coleman, the aviator’s grand-niece.
The hangar boasts 32,000 square feet of enclosed space and 20,000 more under canopy, and offers charter flights, as well as refueling and other services. A second B. Coleman Aviation facility is based in Palm Beach, Fla.
B.R. Lane, Gary’s newly appointed deputy mayor, still has oversight duties with the airport, although its ‘day-to-day’ operations are now supervised by private contractor AvPorts, which won a 10-year contract about a year ago. However, Lane is still tasked with interacting with various agencies, the Regional Development Authority, and other stakeholders.
“The Bessie Coleman Hangar is awesome and beautiful,” said Lane, who recently completed a stint as the airport’s interim director. “You’ve got to come out here and get the tour. As a fixed-based operator, it really is designed to cater to the pilots. These folks come in and go wherever they’re going to go, work, do whatever. They want the pilots to be as entertained and delighted as possible.”
She described one typical scenario: “I’m rich, and I have a meeting in downtown Chicago with other rich people. Instead of flying into Midway, I’m flying into Gary. They’ll send a car for me. But my pilot will stay here, work out, shower and watch the television,” Lane explained.
Boeing long-standing tenant
Since 2003, Chicago-based Boeing has maintained its corporate jet fleet at the Gary airport. The move surprised some at the time, but Boeing representatives explained that they were attracted by the hangar space that Gary afforded. The switch gave Boeing office space, an executive lounge and full-service kitchen. In 2014, Boeing also recognized the Gary Jet Center as one of only 51 companies worldwide to win their “Supplier of the Year”award. At the time, Lane responded, “the airport is very proud of the Gary Jet Center for their outstanding recognition and distinguished honor. We commend the Gary Jet Center for being recognized as an intentional platform and thank them for continuing to shine a bright light on Gary.”
Boeing, as well as visiting tenants at the B. Coleman hangar, have recognized the value offered by the airport, the city of Gary, and the state of Indiana, Lane said. “Boeing has a better tax structure here in Indiana, fuel is cheaper here,” said Lane.
“We have an awesome lakefront, pretty much the same lakefront Chicago has, we’re on the other side,” she said. “We’re also considering how to continue to develop our transportation. We have three highways, 65, 80, 94. We have I.U. Northwest, we have a project underway in University Park, where the state is building a new facility that is both IU and Ivy Tech. We’re going to use those projects to anchor development,” said Lane.
“We’re the third airport in the Chicago airport system,” she pointed out. “We strongly need to focus on our strategic positioning. When we consider this from a system standpoint, how the system can best support us as well, our future may lie in general aviation, expanding our footprint, as Chicago continues to grow. We’re crafting a vision that is sustainable. Here’s what we know. Chicago is not going to move. We’ll always be the same proximity as we are right now. As they really make this push to bring back corporations back to Chicago, we’ll provide aviation services for those executives.”
Lane’s point is well-taken. The airport is located near the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, railroads, and is 25 miles from downtown Chicago, a short trip via the Chicago Skyway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, and Lake Shore Drive.
In past years, the Gary/Chicago International Airport offered service through airlines including Pan Am, Southeast Airlines, SkyValue Airlines, Skybus Airlines and Hooters Air. JetBlue Airways considered Gary before deciding to go with Chicago O’Hare in 2006. The airport is hoping to complete its ambitious runway expansion project in summer 2015, which could open doors to the return of commercial passenger service, city officials said. For more information on Gary’s B Coleman Aviation, visit B-coleman.com.